Gibberish: Falling ice, Gibberish remembers the Ice Storm

Twenty years ago, in January of 1998, we experienced our own icy version of the story of Noah.

The rain began falling, and it didn’t stop.

Perhaps our deluge didn’t last quite the 150 days of the original; but for many people in eastern Ontario and western Quebec, those incredible weeks certainly felt at times, like a catastrophe of Biblical proportions.

Researching the stories and articles on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Great Ice Storm of ‘98 brought back a lot of memories for me.

It was, as scientists have eagerly explained, a ‘one-of’ event. It grew out of a perfect alignment of warm air, cold air, moisture and timing. Ice rain over such a long period had never happened before. It will probably never happen again. (They better be right about that!)

Virtually anyone who lived through the Great Ice Storm has some memories…

For most of us, the whole thing began as some kind of exciting adventure. The school buses were cancelled that Monday morning of January 5 due to “ice rain”. Ice cancellations were (and are) fairly common. Seaway was open, however, and the teaching staff was expected to come in. Most of us did. After all, ice rain usually petered out around lunch time.

Only this time, about 11 a.m., the principal came over the PA to make a very unexpected announcement. “You all need to go home. Now”

That had never happened before.

We headed out to the staff parking lot. I, like most everyone else, was actually really surprised at the accumulation of ice on my car in just a couple of hours. Still, we scraped the stuff off and cheerily said “see you tomorrow.”

I did not see most of my colleagues again for nearly a month.

Later, after Seaway finally re-opened, I overheard kids saying something teachers rarely hear: “I’m so glad to be here!” (Mind you that attitude was fleeting once academic catch-up began.)

I vividly remember the last day there was light and heat in Iroquois. I had the television on, glued to the news. Suddenly the power wavered then was gone. No sound after that but rain, constant rain, under weeping skies.

Nighttime became rather scarey.

As the ice grew heavier and heavier, I remember the sounds of ‘explosions’ when tree branches cracked and split. The noise always seemed worse at night. The cracks were loud and ominously random: destroyed branches often slammed on to the roof and rattled down the incline to the ground, a truly unnerving sound. Later, many people likened it to being in a kind of “war zone”.

No cars moved on the empty, dark, branch-choked streets and highways. We began to feel isolated from the rest of the world. The ice grew thicker and thicker. More power lines and poles collapsed. More trees died.

And still, did something good come out of all this? Absolutely.

Neighbours.

Even if you hadn’t known them before except to say an occasional “hi”, you quickly got to know the folks around you during the Ice Storm.

Neighbours with wood burning stoves and fireplaces threw open their doors to anyone who needed somewhere to go to get warm or just to see a friendly face. Babies, teens, adults, seniors, pets, everyone mixed together, and there was a surprising amount of good humour and laughter.

Remember those really weird shared meals?

Since everything in our fridges and freezers was going to spoil anyway, we just threw what we had together and cheerfully ate the results. Fish and hot dogs for breakfast cooked on someone’s porch barbecue! Delicious.

A pot of hot water to wash in was a luxury. I dried my hair by the heater in the front seat of my running car.

Soon we turned into bridge, scrabble and monopoly fanatics (necessitating a couple of friendly bets!). We shared books and stories by candlelight.

Many of us, kids and adults, volunteered when the emergency response team asked for help. I remember councillor Audrey Rooney organizing us into groups at the Iroquois Civic Centre, sending us out with notebooks to check every house in Iroquois (and even into the countryside) so that needed information could be relayed to the council, the police and firefighters.

On that adventure, it was so icy that a couple of times I remember going up the front porch steps of houses on my hands and knees, then coming down by easing on to my backside and slipping from step to step.

I just made it to the bottom of the wooden steps at one older home when a huge branch broke off and crashed down right where I had been “seated” seconds earlier. (My language warmed up the air a bit that time.)

We found people with flooded basements, neighbours alongside them helping to bail. We shared what little information we had (and not a few rumours, unfortunately) with people who hadn’t been out of their homes in days. We spotted some scarey things, like one very elderly couple who was running a kerosene camp stove in their tightly sealed living room.

Hydro workers and soldiers became our new heroes. When we heard, we shared the sadness of farmers who had lost their stock and families whose homes couldn’t be saved from fire. A battery operated radio became a treasure and a lifeline.

A smile and a helping hand mattered during the Great Ice Storm of ‘98. What didn’t matter was who was extending them.

Some of that same spirit wouldn’t be out of place in 2018, I think.